The brainchild of San Diego-based entrepreneurs Cassandra Curtis and Ari Raz – both of whom had set up baby food businesses of their own* before joining forces in early 2015 – organic baby food brand Once Upon a Farm made its official debut at Expo East in Baltimore in September, and is just starting to hit stores in southern California.
“We’ve launched in Jimbo’s Naturally stores in San Diego and we’re about to launch in Sprouts, Windmill Farms, and Boney’s in San Diego," Raz told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Right now, we’re reaching out to buyers in specialty and natural channels and we’ve got great feedback from pretty much every retailer we’ve spoken to because you can immediately taste the difference in the products compared with anything else that’s on the market today.
"We’ll be in Whole Foods stores throughout the northeast in January, and our goal is to be a nationally distributed brand by beginning to mid-2017."
We are pioneering a new category of baby food
The primary challenge is educating parents to go to the refrigerated section of the store, said Raz, who says Once Upon a Farm is in the unusual position of having to liaise with two buyers – the baby food buyer and the dairy buyer – in order to secure shelf space.
“Our product is HPP treated with a 90-day shelf-life, but it has to be refrigerated, so we are pioneering a new category of baby food. And one of the difficulties is that if you walk into the baby food category, very rarely will you find a refrigerator there, so we have typically been getting into the dairy section in stores [not where parents typically go seeking out baby food products].
High pressure processing (HPP) – whereby foods or beverages are put into a high-pressure chamber that is flooded with cold water and pressurized (thus the ‘cold-pressured’ moniker) in order to kill pathogens without heat - enables Once Upon a Farm to produce baby food that tastes exactly like the stuff you’d make at home, with no preservatives, colors or flavors and a shelf-life long enough to secure national distribution.
“So we’re going to start putting signage in the baby food section so parents know to look for our products in the dairy section.
“We’re also doing lot of work via PR and social media to get the word out there, plus instore demos, sampling, events for new Moms, trade shows, and reaching out to bloggers and influencers.
“But I believe that in three to five years’ time, every single baby food section in the country will have a refrigerator, no question. It will take a little time, but we’re going to get there as the [HPP-treated] product is just so much better.”
Parents not satisfied with watery, sugary, mushy products that have been heated twice
But what’s so special about HPP-treated babyfood in the first place?
Everything about it is better, claimed Raz: “The taste, the texture, the color, the aroma, the nutrition.
"Both Cassandra and I saw white space in the market before we even started working together because we knew that parents were not satisfied with the watery, sugary, mushy products in jars and pouches that have in many cases been heated twice. First the purees are heated and then the final product is heated.”
When it comes to the babyfood category, he added, innovation has come in waves.
“So it started with jars, then the market moved to organic, then it started moving to pouches via brands such as Plum Organics and Happy Baby, and then you started to see improvements in recipes, with more interesting ingredients and superfoods such as kale and amaranth.
“But most products are still processed using thermal heating, so we see unlimited growth potential for a refrigerated product.”
As for formulations, Once Upon a Farm is also unusual in that most options include a source of healthy fat (chia seeds, hemp seeds, avocado etc), added Raz, who says he and Curtis have recently completed one round of investment and have some “high level industry investors” on the company’s advisory board.
“The fat really aids with nutrient absorption, and that sets us apart from pretty much every babyfood on the market today.”
While some other new entrants to the emerging HPP babyfood category such as Pure Spoon have put their products in plastic tubs - which are also being used for HPP-treated hummus and dips, Raz and Curtis opted for pouches, in part because they can be squeezed onto a spoon to spoon feed babies and toddlers can feed themselves.
The retail price is $3.69 said Raz, who is also looking to develop an online subscription service: “Parents love the convenience of having baby food delivered to their home every couple of weeks.”
However, the key is being able to do this cost-effectively and safely, as the cold chain has to be maintained throughout, he added
“We’ll launch that capability when we have worked through the delivery issues.”
* Cassandra Curtis founded Mother's Garden, Inc., the first HPP baby food to hit the shelves in the US, while Ari Raz founded PureJoy, a Washington, D.C. based local baby food home delivery company.